Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Aladdin: A Musical Panto
Burn's production of My Fair Lady tells the story of a cockney flower girl who becomes an elegant lady, and an elegant lady who becomes an empowered woman. Eliza Doolittle (played with ferocity and intelligence by Leigha Kato) is selling flowers from a bucket in Covent Garden when she notices Professor Henry Higgins (Gregory Isaac is deliciously pompous) writing down her every word. Higgins is a phoneticist and Eliza's low class accent piques his academic interest. Higgins casually brags to his fellow linguistics expert Colonel Pickering (Doug Hara) that he could turn Eliza from a "gutter snipe" into a well spoken lady in just six months, but both are surprised when Eliza appears to actually take him up on his offer. Higgins and Pickering wager on the odds of success and Eliza immediately begins a crash course in elocution and diction. She turns out to be a quick study, but it is not clear if anyone can teach Higgins to respect women or appreciate the peril of embedded class distinctions.
Burns sets the story in modern day London and teaches a modern day lesson that could not be more timely. Well intentioned men thoughtlessly demean and dismiss women in a way that is deeply harmful to society, even in the absence of sexual objectification or aggression. When Higgins asks Pickering if he has "ever known a man of good character where women are concerned?," I was instantly reminded of Vice President Pence explaining that a married man should never dine alone with a woman who is not his wife. I am quite sure Professor Higgins would approve.
Kato's excellent depiction of Eliza elevates the production and illuminates the themes of Alan J. Lerner's book. Often portrayed as scrappy but overly emotional, Kato's Eliza possesses the ambition to seek out Higgins' instruction, the tenacity and innate ability to transform herself, and the courage to confront the painful reality of her situation when she could easily rest on her laurels. One of my favorite moments is when Kato's Eliza watches Higgins and Pickering sing the self-congratulatory "You Did It" not with mounting surprise or hurt pride, but with the sharp cool gaze of someone who can no longer deny something they have long suspected. Isaac rises to the occasion, creating a Professor Higgins who is as pretentious and self-absorbed as Eliza is cunning and perceptive. Isaac wisely eschews an angry or brooding tone in favor of an almost jolly pompousness. His Higgins is not angry at the world around him, he simply cannot be bothered to engage. He is enthusiastic about the experiment with Eliza not because he has something to prove, but because the challenge of it is just so much fun. This Higgins is fun to watch and even sympathetic, despite his being a rampant misogynist and single-minded to a fault.
Kato and Isaac are supported by a small ensemble of immense talent. Hara brings a charmingly nervous excitement to the role of Colonel Pickering. The very funny Marcia Saunders plays Mrs. Pearce with dour skepticism and Mrs. Higgins with delightful aplomb. Lee Cortopassi is bumbling and painfully earnest as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Bradley Mott is a boisterous but slightly sinister Alfred P. Doolittle. Pianists Amanda Morton and (music director) Christopher Ertelt provide the glistening accompaniment.
Choreographer Kaki Burns keeps things simple, engaging and upbeat with only the occasional dazzling flourish to reveal the true extent of the ensemble's skill. A lot of effort seems to go toward making the dance numbers work in spite of a needlessly awkward stage setupthe stage is turned into a runway that cuts the full length of the theater in half. It is neat to have the pianos on either side of the room, but the setup leads to some odd staging and serious sound problems. Kato's exuberant soprano and Isaac's sardonic rants are completely swallowed up every time they turn from one side of the stage to the other. The awkward stage placement is not the only difficulty with Doug Greene's minimalistic set design; just as problematic is a persistent sense of gloom created by the relentlessly drab black and gray color palette.
Christina Bullard's costume designs are unfortunately inconsistent. While the men's costumes are creative and well cutHiggins' suits are impressively conservative yet stylish, and the tuxedos Alfred Doolittle and his minions wear in the second act are clever and well executedmany of the women's costumes are bizarre and unflattering. The colorful plastic shoes Eliza wears to the Ascot race would be more appropriate for a nightclub in South Beach Miami. (If the idea was to illustrate Higgins' lack of fashion sense, the dress should not have been so well tailored and event appropriate.) Even the dress she dons for the all important ball at the end of act one is unforgivably ill-fitting. Kato looks better in the plain slip she wears during the overture than she does in the overly clingy off-white gown bunching up around her at the ball.
Fortunately, neither the staging issues or the costume fails can tamp down the energy of this inspired production. Let us hope this is not the last classic musical to take the stage a Quintessence.
My Fair Lady, through December 17th, 2017, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy PA. Tickets are available online at www.quintessencetheatre.org or at the box office at time of performance.